Yemen’s Houthi movement has carried out some of the most escalatory attacks on Israel in response to the Israeli attack on Gaza, including drone and missile strikes on Israeli territory and against international shipping in the Red Sea.
These attacks fall in line with long-held Houthi strategic imperatives. Driven by domestic political calculations in Yemen, regional cooperation with Iran and an ideological disposition against Israel, these attacks fulfill several important objectives for the Houthis, and could in fact have a decisive impact on Yemen’s long-running conflict.
While Iran and Hezbollah have been clear about their aversion to wider regional conflict, the Houthis continue to signal their willingness to escalate matters in the face of the attack on Gaza, and the groups’ attacks are unlikely to cease, and may in fact escalate further, so long as Israel’s campaign continues
On the November 19, forces from Yemen’s rebel Houthi movement launched one of their boldest international attacks to date when they seized the vehicle carrier GALAXY LEADER in a commando-style raid in the Red Sea. Flying in on an old Yemeni Army helicopter emblazoned with the flags of Yemen and Palestine, balaclava-clad, assault rifle-armed Houthi fighters rapidly deployed onto the ship’s deck before seizing control of its bridge. As the hijackers redirected the GALAXY LEADER with its 25-member crew to the Houthi-held port of Hudaydah, the world was left wondering if this was the next step on a path to regional war that started in Israel-Palestine and could end in Yemen.
Since October 7th, the Houthi movement has carried out a number of activities ostensibly aimed at pressuring Israel to cease its assault on Gaza, including public mobilization within Yemen, drone and missile attacks on Israel, and attacks on international commercial vessels. These actions, which have made the Houthis one of the most active Iran-backed groups responding to the situation in Gaza, have raised questions regarding the movement’s capabilities, motive and potential next moves.
In fact, many of the Houthis’ recent actions against Israel conform to long-running patterns in the group’s behavior, although their seizure of a civilian vessel in international waters is a new escalation that raises questions over how far they are willing to go in their support of Palestine. Motivated by a mix of domestic political advantage, international alliances, and ideological disposition, so far the Houthis’ intervention in the Gaza crisis has fulfilled a number of important objectives for the group, and it is unlikely to end so long as the Israeli attack on Gaza continues.
Pro-Palestine Mobilization and Domestic Political Advantage
Although largely overlooked by international media, the first step the Houthis took in response to the Gaza crisis was to initiate a massive pro-Palestine mobilization within Yemen itself. While support for Palestinians is hegemonic among Yemenis and Israel’s assault has caused an unprecedented number of pro-Palestine demonstrations throughout Yemen and much of the world, the Houthis have arguably been unparalleled in this mobilization. Using state institutions under their control, since shortly after Hamas’ October 7th attack on southern Israel, Houthi authorities have organized well over a thousand pro-Palestine protests, likely making Yemen the site of the most pro-Palestine demonstrations per capita in the world. Ranging in scope from school-organized vigils in remote areas to massive Friday marches in central Sana’a, this mobilization has engaged large swathes of Yemeni society and has reportedly been much more successful than similar campaigns the Houthis have recently organized against the Saudi-led coalition.
The extent to which the Houthis are investing in this mobilization underlines the degree to which domestic politics is driving Houthi decision-making on Palestine. After nearly a decade of war and almost two years of a truce with the Saudi-led coalition that has yet to produce a conclusive peace deal, the Houthis are facing real challenges with the Yemeni public. Increasingly totalitarian, unable or unwilling to pay salaries, and viewed by many as attempting to establish a theocracy, the Houthis were dealing with one of their biggest political crises ever in the months immediately preceding October 7th, with popular protests forcing the group to retreat from an attempt to “radically restructure” the Yemeni state.
All of this changed with Hamas’ October 7th attack on Israel. After being denied an active external foe in Saudi Arabia for over a year and a half by Yemen’s ongoing truce, Israel’s assault on Gaza finally gave the Houthis an unpopular enemy against whom they could channel public opinion. And while the deeper issues in Houthi governance no doubt remain, this strategy of diversion appears to be working. Under the cover of the group’s pro-Palestine mobilization, the Houthis have brutally cracked down on the recent months’ protests, and the Houthis’ opponents in the Yemeni government have struggled to articulate a position opposing Houthi actions while maintaining their own public support for Palestine.
The Houthi mobilization around Palestine may in fact prove decisive in determining the end of the Yemen conflict itself. Since April 2022, Yemen has experienced relative calm as a result of a UN-backed truce agreement. Although there are still low-level clashes between Yemeni factions, there have been no major ground offensives while the Houthis and Saudi Arabia negotiate an agreement to hopefully end the conflict and establish power-sharing among Yemeni parties. While reports indicate a Saudi-Houthi agreement may be imminent, since October the Houthis have recruited a large number of fighters on the promise they would get to fight in Palestine, only to then deploy these fighters on fronts facing the Yemeni government. This recent buildup has been significant enough that the Yemeni government recently stated it believes the Houthis are preparing for a large-scale offensive on the long-contested Ma’rib City. Whether or not that offensive ever materializes, it is clear that the Houthis gain significant symbolic and material benefits in Yemen for taking a strong stance on Palestine.
Aerial Attacks and the Axis of Resistance
The next rung in the Houthis’ escalatory ladder during the Gaza crisis has been direct aerial attacks on Israel. Since October 19th, Houthi forces have launched multiple batches of drones and missiles toward southern Israel, located over 1,000 miles from Houthi-held Yemen. Although none have publicly hit a target in Israel, they have forced Israeli air defenses to activate, and the threat they pose has forced the US to deploy a significant naval force to the Red Sea, where it has claimed to intercept several Houthi barrages.
These aerial attacks on Israel bear remarkable resemblance to the Houthis’ years-long air campaign against Saudi Arabia. Between 2015 and 2022, Houthi forces launched over 1,000 rocket/missile attacks and over 350 drone attacks on targets in Saudi Arabia to pressure the Kingdom to withdraw from the Yemen conflict. Although many of these attacks resulted in little or no damage, some were able to strike strategic targets as far away as Riyadh and Jeddah. More consequentially, these attacks often occurred on a weekly–sometimes even daily–basis, requiring the constant deployment of air defense assets and psychologically creating a sense of perpetual bombardment. Although the long distance and significant countermeasures deployed mean the Houthis are unlikely to ever overwhelm Israel’s air defenses, one can already see the group pursuing a similar strategy of keeping up a low, but constant stream of attacks in order to create pressure and, just maybe, get in a lucky shot.
More than any other Houthi action in the Israel-Gaza conflict, the direct aerial attacks on Israel illustrate the extent to which regional considerations, namely the Houthis’ membership in the Iran-led Axis of Resistance, are driving the group’s moves on Gaza. As has been well-documented, the Houthis’ ability to launch attacks of this range and scope is almost entirely due to assistance from Iran, which has developed an incredibly close relationship with the Houthis, even rivaling the one it possesses with Hezbollah. Despite the Houthis’ insistence that their drones and missiles are domestically produced, their models are unmistakably of Iranian origin, including the recently unveiled Toufan type missile that was theorized to be intended to strike Israel weeks before the October 7 attacks.
Moreover, the Houthis have also been very vocal about their international cooperation, with a senior Houthi leader publicly stating that all of the group’s actions on Gaza were being coordinated with its Iran-aligned partners. Viewed from this regional perspective, the Houthis’ recent attacks can be seen as the Axis of Resistance’s best move to support its ally Hamas, apply pressure on Israel, and ultimately save face for not being able to do much more. Despite its constant rhetoric supporting the Palestinian cause, the Iran-led alliance has been surprisingly quiet in the face of Israel’s unprecedented attack on Gaza. Although Iran-aligned militias have launched attacks on US positions in Iraq and Syria, Iran itself has assiduously avoided any military action and Hezbollah has repeatedly telegraphed its desire to avoid any escalation that could devastate an already-fragile Lebanon.
By contrast, the Houthis seem overeager to get into the fight. Firmly ensconced in a state apparatus over a thousand miles away from the Israeli air force, and politically positioned such that their longtime enemy Saudi Arabia is strongly opposed to any US escalation as the Kingdom negotiates a peace deal in Yemen, the Houthis are undoubtedly the Axis of Resistance group with the most to gain and the least to lose by attacking Israel.
Attacks on International Shipping and the Influence of Ideology
The last and most dramatic step taken by the Houthis thus far has been the group’s series of escalating attacks on international shipping. These began on November 19, when helicopter-borne Houthi forces seized the Israeli-owned, Bahamas-flagged vehicle carrier GALAXY LEADER in the Red Sea. This was followed the next week by Somali pirates’ attempted seizure of the Israeli-linked tanker CENTRAL PARK in the Gulf of Aden, with Houthi forces launching missiles into the sea near the incident after US naval forces intervened, and drone and missile attacks on at least five more ships throughout early-to-mid December. With the group’s 9 December announcement that it would target all vessels bound for Israel regardless of nationality, the group appears to be escalating the scope of its shipping attacks at an exponential pace.
Although the Houthis say they will only attack vessels with ties to Israel, the group has been increasingly unorthodox in establishing such connections. While the GALAXY LEADER had a clear Israeli owner, the UNITY EXPLORER was seemingly targeted due to its ownership company having an Israeli officer, and the other ships attacked on 3 December had no readily discernible Israeli connections. With the group’s recent announcement that it would target any ship bound for Israeli ports, the Houthi definition of what constitutes “ties to Israel” has been ambiguous and constantly expanding, prompting concerns about a generalized effect on insurance and freight rates for ships passing through the Bab al-Mandab.
The Houthis’ history of maritime attacks can shed some light on this most recent escalation. As with their drones, the Houthis have developed an impressive array of maritime attack capabilities with assistance from Iran, including remote-controlled explosive-laden boats, naval mines, anti-ship missiles, and maritime drones. And the group has used them. Between 2017 and 2021, Houthi forces launched at least 16 maritime drone attacks on commercial vessels in the waters around Yemen, with the majority of those being Saudi-flaggedd. The Houthis have even specifically targeted Israeli shipping in the past, with a July 2021 attack on the tanker MERCER STREET then-owned by Zodiac Maritime, the same Israeli company that owns the CENTRAL PARK targeted by Somali pirates on 26 November.
However, it’s worth emphasizing that the Houthis have also historically been remarkably measured in their actions against international vessels, presumably to avoid arousing a coalition willing to oust them from Yemen. While the Houthis had previously seized smaller craft they believed to be operating as part of the Saudi-led coalition in the waters off Yemen, the group had never purposefully hijacked a civilian commercial vessel in international waters prior to the 19 November taking of the GALAXY LEADER–which more closely resembled previous ship seizures by Iran in the Persian Gulf. The group has also seemingly taken great care to fire at but purposefully miss ships when it has suited them. As part of their blockade of oil exports from Yemeni government-held areas, Houthi forces have launched several drone and missile attacks which have just barely missed internationally-flagged tankers approaching government-held oil terminals, seemingly trying to scare the vessels away without causing an international incident.
For the same reasons, there’s little evidence to indicate the Houthis have ever actually attempted to strike a US Navy warship, an action which could change the US government’s view of the group as the unpleasant but tolerable rulers of northern Yemen. Evidence from the 2016 incidents often cited as the last time the Houthis fired on a US warship is inconclusive as to whether the group actually intended to hit the ship, and the US Navy has emphasized it cannot determine whether the drones it has recently intercepted were in fact targeting US vessels. In the one recent incident in which the Houthis unambiguously fired ballistic missiles in the vicinity of a US ship, the missiles impacted in the sea over ten nautical miles away. Given how precise the Houthis have proven they can be when carrying out maritime attacks, the most plausible explanation for this is that they intentionally missed so as to not actually get into a shooting war with the United States.
All of this is to say that the Houthis know what they’re doing, and they have reasons for what they do. Throughout the Yemen conflict, the group has shown an ability to carefully calibrate its air and sea attacks to meet a given strategic objective. And while it is possible to chart the domestic and regional politics facilitating the Houthis’ decision to launch their recent attacks, the group has also been very vocal about what they view as their actions’ immediate strategic objective: to end the Israeli assault on Gaza. Given the Houthis have explicitly framed their actions as exerting pressure to end Israel’s attack, perhaps the simplest answer to “why are the Houthis attacking Israel?” is “they think the situation calls for it.”
Understanding this reasoning requires taking what the Houthis say about themselves and their beliefs seriously. As mentioned above, support for Palestine is widespread in Yemen, and while it has condemned Houthi attacks as usurpations of its sovereignty, even the Yemeni government hasn’t theoretically ruled out military action in support of Palestinians. And Yemenis aren’t alone in their concern for Gaza. As the death toll among Palestinians has reached into the tens of thousands amid Israel’s continuing assault, people all over the world have come out in unprecedented numbers to demand their governments do something, anything, to put an end to the bloodshed. While it is important not to read too much humanitarian intent onto a group attempting to brutally enshrine a theocratic caste system, there is undeniably an element of this urgency in Houthi messaging; a sense that something has to be done to stop the slaughter, so why not them?
However, the Houthis also undeniably have deeper, more disturbing ideological reasons for intervening in Gaza, with the group’s worldview motivated by anti-Israel sentiment to an antisemitic, nigh-apocalyptic extent. Formed in the early 2000s amid an atmosphere of anti-Israel activism stemming from the Second Intifada, from its very beginning the Houthi movement has held the literal, physical destruction of Israel as a major tenet. The Houthi slogan, which adorns all the movement’s flags and has been incorporated into educational curricula in Houthi-held areas, has always been “God is the Greatest, Death to America, Death to Israel, A Curse Upon the Jews, Victory to Islam”. Conflict with Israel and Jewish people is central to the Houthi worldview, with the group constantly referring to its enemies in Yemen as part of a “Zionist-American” aggression, and Houthi leaders regularly characterizing regional politics as a Jewish conspiracy.
While it is important not to reduce the Houthis to single-minded fanatics–as their dealings with the US Navy show, they are quite sophisticated in balancing ideological goals with material realities–truly understanding Houthi decision-making requires recognizing that, for many in the group, conflict with Israel is something they’ve been working toward for a long time. Combining this with what it currently offers the group in terms of domestic and regional benefit, the relatively low costs its opponents can credibly impose on it, and the sense of humanitarian urgency generated by the attack on Gaza, the question for many Houthis must be “why should we not attack Israel?”
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.